I got an alumni letter from one of my many old colleges the other day, asking me to update my information, and it had my very first email address on it. Well, not my very first, since my very first email address was at that very college, back in 1992-93, but my first commercial account. It brought back a lot of memories, and that time somehow seems a lot further in the past than it really is.
My first exposure to the Internet was an accident. I frequented a fair number of BBS’s in the late 1980s (and I even had a Compuserve membership for a few years, though I used it sparingly due to the expense), with my trusty 1200bps modem (or maybe I’d upgraded to the doubly fast 2400 by that time). I found an intriguing BBS in Toronto called zooid, which seemed to be a hangout for UNIX types. I knew (and know) nothing about UNIX, but one night stumbled across a command line interface that seemed open to a huge world of information, much larger than typical BBS fare. I started reading about university library collections thousands of miles away. I was giddy, but a bit nervous. Was I supposed to be here? Was this going to cost me money? Fair questions in those days, I think. I didn’t really understand how this worked, and obviously didn’t realize the significance of my discovery until much later. When I headed off to the above mentioned college, in the autumn of 1992, I was about to discover even more.
At this college, as I soon found out, there were rooms in each of the residence halls where groups of terminals glowed around the clock. They had access to something called “e-mail.” Using the pine (or was it elm) mail reader, I soon discovered I could keep in touch with all my friends back in Toronto, at least the two who also had academic email addresses. In an interesting note, my two friends were both graduate students; no undergraduates could use the system at that time. And at my college, everyone could have an email account, but you had to go to the Computer Centre and specifically ask for one, so it was still the domain of the UNIX geeks. Again, I was consumed with worry that this was going to cost money, like long distance charges for the telephone or something.
When I returned to Toronto in the summer of 1993, I knew something had changed. I needed an email account. The offerings were slim. I originally signed up with an outfit called “Info Nation,” which promised a “graphical interface” for the Internet, whatever that meant. But “Info Nation” went belly up within weeks, it seemed. Next, I discovered that a group called “Internex Online” was operating and you could sign up for an account and pay monthly, like your phone bill. At that time, you had to physically go down to their offices and sign up, so off I went. I remembered the place looked like a regular office in a downtown tower block, but it looked like they had just moved in, and the staff looked pretty freaky. It was a few months later I found out that Internex Online actually grew out of that same zooid BBS that I had accessed a few years before. Internex only lasted a few years before hitting some financial problems and being bought out. There’s a fascinating article from 1995 outlining their whole history. It sheds a lot of light on the early days of ISPs, with techies running businesses for the first time. Go and read it.
It seems amazing to me that my entire experience of the Internet spans only 10 years, and that for most people, it’s much shorter than that. I’ve always thought the history of computers was pretty compressed and dizzying, but it’s nothing compared to this. I wonder where we’ll be in another ten years?
(February 2007) BONUS: Here’s a great archived article from March 1994 from Toronto’s eye weekly, by veteran tech writer K.K. Campbell (who seems to have disappeared).